Can Jack Eichel become the first American ‘generational’ hockey talent?

44 Comments

The word “generational” has been thrown around a lot this year in the hockey world.

Both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have had their names attached to the label.

As in, these are generational talents we’re talking about here.

As in, it’s no coincidence that tanking became a hot topic in 2014-15.

McDavid — like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, and most of the other greatest hockey players of all time — is Canadian.

Eichel is American.

There has never been a generational hockey talent that was born and raised in the United States.

Oh, there have been some great American hockey players. Hall of Famers like Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Joe Mullen, Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine. Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is on track for induction.

But none were, or are, head and shoulders above the rest. Case in point, an American-born, American-bred player has never won the Hart Trophy, an award Gretzky received nine times.

Can Eichel become the first?

The fact people are even asking such questions is proof of the hype, which is perhaps unfair to an 18-year-old. While nobody’s demanding that Eichel do for the NHL what Michael Jordan did for the NBA or Tiger Woods for golf, it’s certainly been said before that, for hockey to really thrive in the United States, there needs to be an American Gretzky.

By the way, “American Gretzky” is what Brian Lawton’s agent once predicted his client would become.

Lawton, the first U.S.-born player to be drafted first overall, did not become American Gretzky. Not even close.

When asked in April how he handles the weight of expectations, Eichel told PHT: “To be honest, I try to block out everyone else’s opinions.”

And while he admits that’s easier said than done in the age of social media, he knows it’s part of the deal for today’s star athletes.

“You never know what somebody’s opinion’s going to be, whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s so many people in the world whose opinions I do care for, but there’s more that I don’t care for. I’m worried what the people close to me think of me, and what my teammates think of me.”

Besides, he puts enough pressure on himself. He doesn’t need Twitter’s help.

“I think the one guy that needs to put less pressure on himself is probably myself,” he said. “I’m always pushing myself to get better. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself, and I think sometimes it’s too much.”

Eichel conceded that may have been the case at this year’s World Juniors, where he had just one goal and three assists for an American squad that lost in the quarterfinals. In stark contrast, McDavid had three goals and eight assists for gold medal-winning Canada.

“It’s a pressure situation up there,” Eichel said of the tournament that was co-hosted by Toronto and Montreal. “There was a lot going on at that time, and I really wanted to help our team be successful. It was a good experience for me, going up there and dealing with the things that I dealt with. I definitely learned a lot from it.”

The reviews of his game were far better at the World Championships, where he helped the Americans to a surprising bronze medal. Eichel finished with two goals and five assists in 10 games, playing with and against top professionals.

Friday in Florida, Eichel will be selected second overall by the Buffalo Sabres, right after McDavid goes first to the Edmonton Oilers.

Maybe Eichel will go on to become the greatest American hockey player of all time.

Maybe he’ll be a bust.

But Friday is where his NHL story will officially start, with great expectations.